Our Little Duckie

Thomas Jones

  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
    Canongate, 199 pp, £12.00, October 2005, ISBN 1 84195 645 7

Margaret Atwood’s new novel is a reworking of the Odyssey, told largely from Penelope’s point of view. The Penelopiad is presented by its publisher as a retelling of a myth, but it isn’t quite that. The story of Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War would qualify as a myth, but the Odyssey does not, if a myth is a story that doesn’t depend for its resonance and power on the details and language of any one version. The Penelopiad is written very precisely in response not to the myth of Odysseus, but to the Odyssey.

One reason for recasting an old work is that over time, the things that readers take for granted and the things that need explaining change. A modern reader of the Odyssey might well wonder what is going on in the mind of faithful Penelope, as she obediently waits twenty years for her husband to come home, weaving and weeping and putting off suitors and going to her room when Telemachus, her son, tells her to. As the first of her two epigraphs, each representative of an aspect of the Odyssey that she reassesses, Atwood takes an encomium to Penelope from Book 24, in E.V. Rieu and D.C.H. Rieu’s translation:

Shrewd Odysseus! . . . You are a fortunate man to have won a wife of such pre-eminent virtue! How faithful was your flawless Penelope, Icarius’ daughter! How loyally she kept the memory of the husband of her youth! The glory of her virtue will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods themselves will make a beautiful song for mortal ears in honour of the constant Penelope.

The striking thing about this apostrophe – spoken, though Atwood doesn’t say so, by Agamemnon’s ghost in Hades – is that it is addressed not to Penelope herself, but to Odysseus: it’s all about him, not her. The world of the Odyssey is a man’s world. In The Penelopiad, Penelope gets the chance to put her side of the story. One of the functions of literature, after all, is to give a voice to the voiceless, and that can include characters from other works of literature.

Now that I’m dead I know everything,’ Penelope’s narrative begins. ‘This is what I wished would happen’ – when she was alive, presumably – ‘but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true.’ The voice that Atwood gives Penelope’s ghost is modern, matter-of-fact, smart, funny, unillusioned: ‘Every once in a while the fogs part and we get a glimpse of the world of the living. It’s like rubbing the glass on a dirty window, making a space to look through. Sometimes the barrier dissolves and we can go on an outing. Then we get very excited, and there is a great deal of squeaking.’ This novel is one such outing, if without the squeaking. The narrator exists neither in the world she lived in nor in ours, but in limbo somewhere in between – the ideal place from which to tell her story. The narrative moves between recollections of her life on earth and encounters in Hades with the ghosts of the people she once knew.

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